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Delhi must do what little it can to strengthen the civilian, democratic forces in Pakistan

The current juncture in Pakistan is a good moment for India to speak up on Pakistan’s internal developments. Demanding humane treatment for Sharif and Zardari is the least Delhi can do.

Written by C. Raja Mohan |
Updated: October 31, 2019 11:26:02 am
Neighbour’s duty In the east, Pakistan confronts the surprising Indian decision to change the constitutional status of Kashmir and in the west, Islamabad hopes to shape the political transition in Afghanistan and install the Taliban in power. (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

As he rattles the Pakistani establishment with a big march on Islamabad this week, the Deobandi leader, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, has been accused of fronting for India. Branding political opponents as “agents” of the other county is quite common in Pakistan and India. What is more significant, though, is Delhi’s apparent reluctance to exercise India’s natural leverage in Pakistan’s domestic politics. Could, or should, that change?

But first to Maulana Fazlur Rehman, who heads the dominant faction of the Jamiat ulema-e-Islam in Pakistan. For more than three decades, the Maulana has lent some colour to the drab Pakistani politics. Even more important, he has survived in a political environment where longevity is not assured.

The Maulana is accusing Prime Minister Imran Khan of abject failure on all fronts. He is demanding that the PM resign forthwith and make room for fresh elections. The “deep state” or the military establishment (the miltablishment) was quick to caution him against the march. The Maulana has persisted for now and the big rally in Islamabad is scheduled for Thursday.

The deep state questions the timing of the anti-government protests by pointing to Pakistan’s troubled external environment. In the east, Pakistan confronts the surprising Indian decision to change the constitutional status of Kashmir and in the west, Islamabad hopes to shape the political transition in Afghanistan and install the Taliban in power.

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The call for political restraint has not had much appeal amid the worsening economic situation, especially after the implementation of the IMF regimen that Pakistan had accepted earlier this year. Meanwhile, the international Financial Action Task Force has warned of additional measures against Pakistan if it does not clean up its act on terror financing over the next few months.

Rehman probably did not intend it this way, but his march has coincided with the rapid deterioration in the health of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif who has been in prison since last year. The three-time prime minister has endured some unbelievably harsh punishment meted out to him by the Pakistan government. If the miltablishment wanted to make a horrible example of Sharif, who had dared to challenge the writ of the army, Imran Khan has been willing to wield the hatchet.

Sharif was convicted by a judge who had been blackmailed into pronouncing the former PM guilty, denying him decent medical care, and preventing him from seeing his wife when she was on the deathbed in London. The government locked up Sharif’s daughter and heir-apparent, Maryam, as she sought to mobilise the people against the army. For good measure, the deep state also detained Maryam’s husband. Beyond the Sharif family, another leader of the Pakistan Muslim League and former prime minister, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, is also behind bars.

None of this is really remarkable for Pakistan, where falling foul of the army is a crime in itself. Pakistan’s deep state has the distinction of hanging one prime minister (Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto) and is widely suspected of organising and covering up the assassination of another (Bhutto’s daughter, Benazir). But the danger that Sharif might die in detention appears to have created a bit of a political panic. He has suddenly been given bail and admitted to hospital. Whether Nawaz Sharif survives or not, his sinking physical condition appears to have galvanised part of the political Opposition. The Pakistan People’s Party, whose leader and former President Asif Ali Zardari is also in jail without any trial, is backing the march to Islamabad.

Delhi’s official silence, amidst the deepening political and economic crisis next door, seems strange. It is not just the government, none of the main political parties are paying any attention to the unfolding brutalisation of Pakistan’s politics or reflecting on its consequences for India.

Three broad reasons might be offered for India’s silence on Pakistan’s domestic politics. One is India’s natural tendency towards self-absorption. Second is the unfortunate current temptation in India to see Pakistan as a black box. The intensification of tensions with Islamabad in recent years appears to have eroded Delhi’s ability to differentiate between Pakistan’s multiple institutions and political formations.

Third is the argument in Delhi that the dominance of the Pakistan army over its polity is immutable and therefore it is pointless for India to raise its voice against Rawalpindi’s domestic transgressions. Associated with this is the proposition that if India wants any settlement with Pakistan, it has no choice but to deal with the army.

India, however, needs to question all the three propositions. On the first, India can’t afford to turn its back on the domestic developments in any of its neighbouring countries. What happens inside Pakistan should always concern Delhi. Second, in treating Pakistan as a black box, Delhi limits its own policy choices. Delhi can’t ignore the fact that even minor shifts in the correlation of Pakistan’s domestic forces open at least some tactical space for India’s policy.

Third, while the army’s dominance over Pakistan’s polity is real and unlikely to break down in the near future, India can’t abandon all hope of internal change in Pakistan. Rather, Delhi must continuously strive to do what it can to encourage that change. Instead of insisting that the Pakistan army is the only credible interlocutor, Delhi must find ways to engage with all forces in Pakistan. It must keep channels of communication open with whoever in Pakistan is willing to talk.

The main policy question for Delhi is not about having formal talks with Islamabad. It is about leveraging the fact that India looms large over Pakistan’s domestic politics. The current juncture in Pakistan is as good a moment as any for India to speak up on Pakistan’s internal developments.

Demanding humane treatment for Sharif and Zardari is the least Delhi can do. Delhi certainly owes it to them. Both leaders had made genuine efforts to improve relations with India when they were in power. They had often talked of putting trade and people-to-people relations above the Kashmir dispute. That they were open to a positive relationship with India is among the reasons that Rawalpindi punishes them today.

Beyond the personal and ethical, it is in Delhi’s interest to continuously remind itself and the world that India’s problem is with the Pakistan army and not its political leaders. Having gotten nowhere with its efforts to engage the army in recent years, Delhi must do what little it can to strengthen the civilian and democratic forces in Pakistan.

This article first appeared in the print edition on October 31, 2019 under the title ‘Neighbour’s duty’. The writer is director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express.

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